How To Blog
Advice from Arianna Huffington, Om Malik, and more of the Web's best pundits.
Add something new. This might seem obvious, but new bloggers tend to forget it: Readers aren't going to stick with you unless you give them something they can't find elsewhere. If all you've got to say about Bernie Madoff is that he's a crook and a bastard, why don't you sit on that egg a little longer? If you're coming to blogging from journalism, think about contributing some reporting. "It's really not very hard to pick up the phone or email someone primary to the story," Singel says. "If you do, you can advance the story and you will stand out." Another tactic is to focus on an aspect of the story that few others have noticed. Did you see that Madoff's golf scores were as suspiciously consistent as his investment returns? Now that's interesting, isn't it?
The American Prospect's Ezra Klein, whose politics and public policy blog carries the blogosphere's best slogan—"Momma said wonk you out"—stresses this idea even more: Aim your blogging energies at a narrow topic, he says. Klein's bailiwick is health care policy, about which he regularly offers deep, technical commentary. "That's not to say you have to create a niche blog," he adds. "The specialized posts mix with the generalized posts—in my case, health wonkery rubs elbows with garden variety political punditry—and the two cross-subsidize each other. The rigor of the more technical work gives you credibility in the reader's mind and adds weight to the generalist posts. The generalist posts broaden the blog's potential audience and create access points that new readers wouldn't have if you let the blog become a repository of technical commentary."
Join the bloggy conversation. And link! The only way people will find your blog is through other blogs—and you'll get other blogs to notice you by responding to what they're writing about. Do this both in your blog and in the comments sections of other blogs. Take other people's ideas seriously: Don't just say you love or hate Ezra Klein's post; say why he's right or wrong. Also, try not to steal other people's scoops. And if you do cite another blog's work, give credit prominently. Live by Felix Salmon's maxim: "Be generous: With links, with email replies, with hat-tips."
Don't expect instant fame. Actually, don't expect any fame.There are better ways than blogging to get rich and famous. (I've been hearing good things about a certain Charles Ponzi.) "It's a rapid and stark realization that you probably won't be so much better a writer or political analyst that your opinions on Barack Obama will muscle their way through the chaos and cacophony of the blogosphere," Klein says, "and that's even truer now, with more blogs and more entrenched voices, than it was in 2003, when I began." Several of the bloggers I contacted manage to support themselves mainly or entirely through blogging, but as Jeff Atwood notes, hoping even for that much is akin to hoping to play in the NBA. It happens to some people, but you can't expect that it'll happen to you.
So why should you blog? Because if you do it well for long enough, people—maybe a few hundred, maybe a few thousand, maybe more—will begin to read you. How long will it take to gain that following? You'll probably have to wait a year or more before anyone starts paying attention. If you can't wait that long, stop now. Also keep in mind there are reasons to stick with blogging even if just a handful of people read your work. Writing regularly will boost your ability to express yourself, a boon in any conceivable task, Atwood says.
A few other tips. Om Malik, whose blogging success spawned an entire network of tech blogs, offers two thoughts: 1) Wait at least 15 minutes before publishing something you've written—this will give you enough distance to edit yourself dispassionately; and 2) write everything as if your mom is reading your work, a good way to maintain civility and keep your work comprehensible.
Felix Salmon adds, "Funny is always a good idea" and "always link to primary sources—you'd be astonished how many bloggers don't do this."
Then, from Ryan Singel: "Pictures. Always. People like pretty pictures and there's a surprising number of free photos on the internet." (Tip: Search Flickr for Creative Commons-licensed photos.)
And finally, here's Mike Masnick, who runs the always insightful Techdirt: "When in doubt, write. When really in doubt, ask your readers for their opinions. Don't beg for traffic. Don't worry about traffic. Just write what you're interested in, communicate with others, and enjoy yourself."
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.